By Sam Wikins
America was shaken by the tragic event that happened in Sanford, Florida on February 5, 2012, where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman. A media sensation, Martin’s death and the Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal on July 13, 2013 led to a closer inspection of various “Stand Your Ground” Laws. Stand your ground laws (SYG) basically give individuals the legal right to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” they are threatened. And unlike the “castle doctrine” of the past, SYG allows this outside your home.
Over the past decade, SYG laws were enacted without much public notice or debate, but as a key interest of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Groups opposed to the legislation included national gun-control groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The laws were passed by state houses and state senates with little true opposition, receiving unanimous passage in some cases, and near unanimous in the rest.
Following Martin’s shooting, the laws became national flash points for a number of emotionally-portrayed groups on both sides of the issue. It has continued resonance in race politics, with Trayvon Martin being portrayed on the cover of the January 21st 2015 issue of The New Yorker (the current issue), marching with Dr. Martin Luther King and several more recent victims of interracial gun violence.
Although twenty-three states now have some version of SYG, Florida seems to be the logical choice as the state to focus on because: a) the death of Trayvon Martin happened there, b) there are well-recorded case reports where stand your ground was used and c) Florida was the first state to enact SYG.
Proponents of the law point to Florida’s reduced violent crime since 2005, the year it was passed. SYG supporters believe that this law gives people the right to defend themselves in an increasingly hostile world.
Anti-SYG advocates say that these laws make it legal to kill without cause, especially with black victims and white shooters. They point to evidence on the Tampa Bay Times website, an incredible resource that “though incomplete, is the most comprehensive in the state and likely includes most fatal cases.”
The optics of the Trayvon Martin case gave both sides the ability to make their point (and probably to fund raise and sign up new members). Before SYG was passed, proponents played to the fears of their constituents. After Trayvon Martin was killed, SYG opponents played to the fears of theirs.
There is a wealth of data kept on crime and SYG, but it is open to interpretation, especially when bright people on both sides of the issue are working to get it to fit their version of the narrative. This narrative is largely emotional on both sides, with convenient statistics used by both sides to give intellectual cover.
The media has sometimes been lazy in its portrayal of the issue as southern white racists and their evil Republican billionaire paymasters vs. race-baiting carpet-baggers and their evil Democratic ambulance chasers. But it also tried to examine whether the “stand your ground” and related laws increase or decrease crime, especially gun violence, and more specifically unpunished white on black crime.
It has been a decade, and one should be able to ask “Do Stand Your Ground laws increase gun violence?” In my research I learned much about this law, how it affects the people it is intended to protect and the powerful interest groups whose ideologies shape (or reflect) public opinion. So is SYG necessary, a necessary evil, or just evil?
Case Study: Florida
Stand Your Ground laws evolved from the related Castle Doctrine, which had been on the books in a number of states beginning in the mid-1980s. The Castle Doctrine (also called the “Make My Day” doctrine after a Dirty Harry quote from 1983) allowed people to use deadly force when they felt threatened by someone in their home without first having the “duty of retreat.”
Florida was the first state to pass a Stand Your Ground law, when governor Jeb Bush signed the bill on April 26, 2005. It passed 94-20 in the state house and 39-0 in the state senate. Florida was the first battleground of a nationwide effort by the National Rifle Association, and by the end of 2006, another 13 states also had SYG. The number of states with Stand Your Ground laws peaked at 23 in 2012.
For the first seven years of Florida’s law, there were only occasional news stories about a head-shaking example of the law gone wrong. In 2008, a gang war shooting in Tallahassee in which a 15-year-old was killed was not prosecuted because the shooters said they feared being killed by the rival gang. This was reported locally, but did not become a nationwide cause. Nor did these stories cause a potent attempt to repeal the law.
SYG laws were passed at a time when violent crime had been decreasing nationwide for more than a decade. The same was true in Florida.
In 1994, the violent crime rate (murder, robbery, aggravated assault and forcible sex offenses) in Florida was 1,100 per 100,000 people. In 2005, the year Florida’s bill passed, the rate was down to 702 per 100,000 people, a 36% decrease. In the nine years since the bill passed, the rate continued to drop. In 2013, it was down to 476 per 100,000, another 32%.
Nationwide, from 2002 through 2011, homicides declined for both whites and blacks, and across all age groups, at roughly the same rate. But the data shows that the homicide rate remained much higher for blacks than whites (6.3 times higher, though both rates are low .02% for blacks and .003% for whites). Males are almost 4 times more likely than women, and that the 18-24 year old cohort remains the most likely homicide victim.
These three categories combine to make the homicide rates for young black males remarkably higher than any other category. The rate among 20-25 year old black males is nearly one in a thousand, nine times higher than a white male of the same age.
Interracial crime is a hot button, and one reason for the lasting national interest in the Trayvon Martin case, but most homicides are not interracial. A 20-year study showed that in Florida, 9% of the homicides involved black assailants and white victims, while 5% involved white assailants and black victims. 85% of Florida homicides were not interracial.
In Florida, the number of murders did increase from the period 1998-2005, when murders were between 850 and 950 each year, to the post-law 2006-2013 period, when there were between 970 and 1,200 each year. With the state’s population increasing, though, the murder rate went down from 6 per 100,000 in 1998 to 5 per 100,000 in 2013.
At the same time, gun ownership was increasing in Florida (and the US). While it is hard to get a good read on gun ownership in Florida (because since 2004 it has been a felony there for anyone there, including government agencies, to keep a list of gun owners) the FBI has The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This allows retailers to make sure buyers are eligible to purchase firearms or explosives. Many people use it as a way to see trends in gun ownership.
From 1999, NICS’s first full year, through 2014, background checks have increased dramatically in the US and in Florida. From 1999 through 2005, total checks in the US were roughly the same, varying between 8.5M and 9.0M checks per year. Florida was also the same from ‘99 through ‘04, at between 270K and 300K.
Since then there has been a big increase in checks performed both in Florida and the overall US. In 2010 there were 14.4M checks in the US and 560K in Florida. In 2014, the number grew to 21M in the US and 1M in Florida. Florida’s percentage of the national total grew from about 3.3% to 4.8% during this time.
But clearly, Stand Your Ground was not enacted in Florida to counter an increase in violent crime. Violent crime was dropping. And violent crime continued to decrease after enactment, even as gun ownership increased. So what effects, if any, did SYG have on crime? Especially gun crime?
From what I found, it appears that few people studied the effects of Stand Your Ground laws in Florida (or anywhere else) until after the Trayvon Martin case became national news in 2012.
Soon after, there were studies published that showed an increase in homicides nationally for states with SYG.
McClellan and Terken in 2012 found that there was a statistically significant increase in injury and homicide. But they found that this was due to an additional 30 white males per month being killed nationwide, but no increase in homicides with black victims.
Also in 2012, two Texas A&M professors, Cheng and Hoekstra, saw in their data a relative homicide increase of 7-9% for SYG states, while having no deterrent effect on robbery or aggravated assault.
The National Urban League, using FBI statistics, found that “justified homicides” increased from 196 in 2005 to 278 in 2010. But that is what you would expect, even if no more people were being killed. The new laws do just that – they justify certain types of homicides. Here the number of black victims more than doubled, while the overall category rose 40%.
But pro-SYG factions countered with their interpretation of FBI data showing that while violent crime rates decreased everywhere when comparing 2000-05 with 2006-10, they dropped the most in states who enacted some form of castle doctrine laws.
The sponsor of Florida’s law, State Representative Dennis Baxley said, “What we’ve learned is if we empower people to stop bad things from happening, they will. And in fact, that statistic is coupled with another statistic. That is the fact that we’ve had a dramatic drop in violent crime since this law has been in effect.”
On its website, The Tampa Bay Times has an interactive listing of Florida’s Stand Your Ground cases current through October 2014. It lists 134 fatal cases. 75 of them were deemed justified, 45 were convicted, and 14 were pending. So just 62% of decided cases were justified, even with SYG.
The site is searchable by race. Of the 134 cases, 43 involved black victims. 10 were convicted and 27 were justified, or 72%. 81 involved white victims. 33 convicted and 41 justified, or 55%. With 10 Hispanic victims, 2 were convicted and 7 were justified, or 77%.
Like the nation’s overall homicide statistics, most Florida SYG cases are not interracial. But here is the breakdown:
White accused/Black victim 2 were convicted, 6 justified. 75%
Black accused/White victim 3 were convicted, 4 justified. 57%
Black accused/Black victim 8 were convicted, 18 justified. 70%
White11 accused/White victim 26 were convicted, 34 justified. 56%
Trayvon Martin is classified here as Hispanic accused/Black victim. There are only 3 examples, but in each case, it was classified as justified.
The sample size is small, but it seems to suggest that a white person accused in an SYG incident is less likely to be convicted than a black person, regardless of the race of the victim. But because of the room for error, it doesn’t really show that a white person who kills a black person and claims SYG is much more likely to go free than a black person who kills a black person and claims SYG.
It is my thought that the data presented in the various studies and sites is inconclusive. Certainly, it has not been good enough to get most SYG laws revoked. Further, after a few studies were done soon after the Trayvon Martin shooting, there have not been many new studies (that don’t rely on the old studies previously mentioned).
The outcry following the Trayvon Martin shooting caused only one state to significantly tone down its SYG law (Louisiana). But it also seems to have put a lid on new states adopting similar measures. Since 2012, no new SYG laws have been enacted.
The Who & the Why:
This stand-off is more evidence that the SYG laws are not data-driven. Instead support for and opposition to SYG relied on emotional pleas, and a call to other beliefs that have nothing specific to do with SYG.
The American Legislative Exchange Council: Before Trayvon
As mentioned, the SYG bill in Florida, as well as those in other states, was important to the NRA. In Florida and elsewhere, the NRA prevailed upon a not-for-profit group called American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) to actually write and pass the bill for them.
ALEC says it is a “nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and general public.” While it claims nonpartisanship, it was once called the “Conservative Caucus of State Legislators.” Critics call it a “right wing group.” Early multimillion dollar funders included various Koch and Coors entities.
It is also funded by corporations (which at the time included AT&T, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and many other “Fortune 500” companies) who use ALEC to persuade state legislators to sponsor beneficial bills For example, The Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group, the country’s two largest private jailers, are corporate members. Many of the current laws for arresting and jailing illegal aliens were created by ALEC, as were the earlier “3-strike” laws. Both serve to increase prison populations.
ALEC claims to have 25% of the country’s state legislators as members, which may help explain why the SYG votes were so lopsided.
In Florida, the bill’s sponsors were Senator Durell Peaden and Representative Dennis Baxley. Both were ALEC members. In 2004, Baxley received the NRA’s Defender of Freedom award. The bill was debated for less than an hour in both chambers before being passed.
ALEC listed “Castle Doctrine Act” meaning the SYG laws, as one of its “Model Bill Highlights for 2007,” along with the likes of the Tax and Expenditure Limitation Act, Taxpayer Transparency Act, and Computer Spyware Protection Act.
The National Rifle Association (NRA): Before Trayvon
The National Rifle Association says its primary mission is to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” especially the right to keep and bear arms. According to polls of lawmakers and their staffs, the NRA is the most powerful lobbying organization in America. In 2012, 88 percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Democrats in Congress had received money from the NRA at some point in their careers. 47% had in their most recent race. The NRA has roughly 5M members, and total revenue for 2011 was $220 million.
The NRA was a donor to, and a member of, ALEC.
The NRA’s Florida point person when the SYG law was passed was its former president, Marion Hammer, a four foot 11 inch chain-smoking 66-year-old grandmother. She “stared down legislators as they voted,” and was by Governor Bush’s side when the law was signed.
A number of commenters saw the bill’s passage as due to legislators not wanting to get on the bad side of the NRA. “I don’t think too many people in office are particularly enthusiastic about this legislation,” said Robert Batey, a Stetson University law professor. “I think they simply don’t want to cross the NRA.”
The arguments made for the bill by the NRA were not data-based, but were emotional appeals.
Hammer said “The new law is on the side of the victim…You can’t expect a victim to wait and ask, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, are you going to rape me and kill me, or are you just going to beat me up and steal my television?’”
Baxley said retreating from an attack was “a good way to get shot in the back,” and called SYG a “shoot to live” law. “Some violent rape will not occur because somebody will feel empowered by this bill. Somebody’s child will not be abducted. . . . You’re going to prevent a murder.”
The NRA lobbied for the bill’s passage, and afterward said it would use the Florida victory to push for similar measures elsewhere. An NRA official served as co-chair of the ALEC committee that adopted the model law based on Florida to take to other states.
Florida Governors: Before Trayvon
After he signed SYG into law Governor Jeb Bush said he believed the measure was a good idea. “I’m comfortable that the bill is a bill that relates to self-defense. It’s a good, common sense, anti-crime issue…to have to retreat and put yourself in a very precarious position defies common sense.”
In the Florida gubernatorial race of 2006, while Democratic candidate Jim Davis didn’t endorse a petition drive to change SYG, he did say he would take a look at it if elected. The Republican candidate Charlie Crist backed the law, and had support from the NRA. “His opponent is an anti-gun gun banner,” Hammer said in a campaign ad. “Charlie Crist is the only candidate for governor we can trust with our freedom and our guns.” Crist won handily.
In 2010, Crist signed a law forbidding adoption agencies from considering gun ownership when matching children with prospective parents. In 2011, new Governor Rick Scott, an NRA member, approved the “Docs versus Glocks” statute, prohibiting doctors from asking patients whether they have guns.
Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: Before Trayvon
What opposition there was at the time of the bill’s introduction was led by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The Brady Campaign is a national nonprofit organization that advocates for gun-control. It was founded in 1974, and renamed in 2001 after Jim Brady, who was shot in 1981 while working for Ronald Reagan. It has roughly 600K members (8 times smaller than the NRA) with a budget in 2012 of $3.3M (70 times smaller than the NRA).
The Brady Campaign also used emotional appeals instead of data, calling SYG a “shoot first” bill.
After Florida’s SYG law passed, Brady Campaign workers passed out fliers at Miami International Airport offering ironic advice like “Do not argue unnecessarily with local people.” The group also published ads in some large out-of-state newspapers. “Thinking about a Florida vacation? Please ensure your family is safe.” On the one-year anniversary of the law, the Brady Campaign issued a press release to disparage it.
As ALEC and the NRA moved SYG efforts to other states, The Brady Campaign was often the main opposition. A Brady spokesman said the bills have been orchestrated by the NRA to help gun manufacturers increase sales, calling their efforts “nothing more than a marketing campaign disguised as an urgent policy need.”
Other Opponents: Before Trayvon
SYG was opposed in Florida by some in law enforcement and a few politicians. Miami police chief John Timoney called the bill unnecessary and dangerous while former Broward County Prosecutor David Frankel said “It is an abomination.”
Florida House member Irv Slosberg said, “All this bill will do is sell more guns and possibly turn Florida into the OK Corral,” while fellow House member Eleanor Sobel said, “This bill creates a Wild, Wild West out there.”
Outside Experts & the Media: Before Trayvon
Newspapers described the law as “controversial,” and were good at getting quotes from both sides. But they too offered very little evidence either way. One paper quoted Florida State criminology professor Gary Kleck, who said he expected neither a spike nor a dip in gun violence, as most Floridians were already well armed because of an earlier concealed-weapons law. And the media did not seem very concerned with the law one way or another once it passed.
What motives would the NRA and ALEC have for a sustained multi-year, multi-state effort on SYG? ALEC member Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest seller of guns. Would SYG really increase handgun sales?
After Trayvon Martin
The nationwide uproar caused by Trayvon Martin’s shooting death in 2012 brought a new group of SYG opponents into the picture, including many organizations which exist to champion causes of importance to black Americans.
The spotlight also caused some of the key players from the original 2005 law passage to adjust their rhetoric, if only temporarily.
What is obvious is that the shooting and the trial didn’t really change anyone’s mind about SYG. It just made people more vocal.
The American Legislative Exchange Council: After Trayvon
Though in existence since the 1970s, ALEC was little known prior to Trayvon Martin’s death, when it was suddenly featured in unflattering headlines like: “ALEC, the NRA, and the Killing of Trayvon Martin” (Huffington Post).
ALEC immediately tried to calm the waters. They said “Trayvon Martin’s death was a great tragedy that brings sadness to all of us. Our hearts go out to his family, friends, and community…Moreover, it is unclear whether that law could apply to this case at all. ‘Stand Your Ground’ or the ‘Castle Doctrine’ is designed to protect people who defend themselves from imminent death and great bodily harm. It does not allow you to pursue another person. It does not allow you to seek confrontation. It does not allow you to attack someone who does not pose an imminent threat. What it does is allow you to defend yourself and your family from immediate and real danger.”
Representative Baxley, the ALEC member and sponsor of Florida’s SYG, also went in that direction, contending that his law shouldn’t shield Zimmerman at all, because he pursued Martin. (In fact, Zimmerman’s attorneys decided against using SYG in his defense).
Color of Change is an organization founded after Hurricane Katrina to “strengthen the political voice of black America.” In 2011, prior to the killing, it launched a campaign against ALEC’s Voter ID lawmaking, aiming to pressure ALEC’s corporate members to withdraw.
After the killing, that campaign gained strength, and more than sixty corporations and foundations, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, General Electric, Apple and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation did leave ALEC. (What companies like Apple were doing there in the first place is a different question.)
ALEC said its critics were a “coalition of extreme liberal activists committed to silencing anyone who disagrees with their agenda.” Liberals were wielding “the corpse of Trayvon Martin” as part of a broader anti-capitalist push.
However, just a month later, ALEC eliminated its Public Safety and Elections task force that dealt with issues like SYG, “reinvesting these resources in the task forces that focus on the economy.”
The National Rifle Association (NRA): After Trayvon
The NRA was quiet on the matter at first, and in the days after the tragedy did not reply to press requests for comment.
Some requests were referred to Howard Nemerov, a pro-NRA gun-rights activist. Nemerov offered analysis in which he sought to show that criticisms about the law were flawed.
Elsewhere, Nemerov brought up the case of Hygens Labidou, a black roofing contractor who was able to use SYG to be acquitted of shooting two whites who were trying to pull him from his truck. To deny Labidou his SYG rights, according to Nemerov was to “restore the plantation.”
When Marion Hammer was quoted not long after the killing as saying “I like to think of Florida as first in freedom,” she was identified as “executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida, a National Rifle Association affiliate,” instead of being part of the NRA directly.
Florida Governors: After Trayvon
NRA member Governor Rick Scott impaneled the Citizen Safety and Protection Task Force to examine the state’s SYG laws. In November 2012 the task force affirmed the law. Said one panel member: “What this law is designed to do, and what the law has done…is it protects honest citizens. And it’s our job as a task force to protect honest citizens and not coddle criminals. This law should not be changed.”
Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: After Trayvon
In interviews immediately following the shooting, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign took advantage of the new press interest, and accused the NRA of “feeding on fear and paranoia…The goal of the gun lobby is to make Florida their armed utopia and spread that mentality nationally.” Florida, he said, was becoming the “Gunshine State.”
In an Orlando Sentinel story, Gross said “We’re heartbroken about this tragedy, but we’re not surprised it happened in Florida.”
In the same story, Marion Hammer would not speak about the shooting. “There is an investigation going on. Nobody knows what the facts are, and it’s inappropriate to make comments at this time.” But she did accuse gun-control advocates (like Gross) of exploiting Trayvon’s death. “They let no tragedy go unused. They trample on tragedies for political advantage and political gain,” she said.
The Media: After Trayvon
This became a world issue with groups like Aljazeera and the BBC placing reporters on the ground during the trial. Many high-profile celebrities and politicians showed disgust with the killing and subsequent acquittal verdict for Zimmerman.
There was also a huge amount of online writing from both sides of the argument. The Nation and Huffington Post outed ALEC and the NRA. Right wing bloggers like talk radio host Neil Boortz blasted the “various race pimps and organizations grabbing a little publicity for themselves while agitating the crowd and muddying the issue. Foremost among these people is that race-baiting creep from New York City Al Sharpton.”
Al Sharpton: After Trayvon
Al Sharpton is a civil rights activist, talk show host, political advisor and president of National Action Network. Sharpton did not figure in the early debates over Florida’s SYG, or SYG in other states, but started participating after Martin’s shooting.
In April 2012, he held a press conference with Trayvon Martin’s family. When Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013, he stated, “I think that this is an atrocity. It is probably one of the worst situations that I have seen.” It was “a slap in the face to those that believe in justice in this country.” In July of 2014, he and Martin’s parents led a march to the Florida state Capitol. “To have laws that tell people that they can shoot first and then ask questions later is a violation of our civil rights. I believe that law is inherently wrong.” Sharpton called Florida “ground zero” for the fight against ‘stand your ground.’
Interestingly, Sharpton’s National Action Network shares numerous corporate donors with ALEC, including AT&T, FedEx, General Electric and Wal-Mart. Sharpton has said “I’ve been able to reach from the streets to the suites.”
President Obama: After Trayvon
President Obama showed little public interest in SYG prior to the Trayvon Martin shooting (that I could find). After the Zimmerman verdict, President Obama interrupted a White House press conference to share his thoughts on the situation: “When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
He also suggested that he planned to examine certain states’ SYG laws, but has seemingly let the issue slip. The final chapter of Jeff Chang’s book Who We Be focuses on the Martin case, and, according to reviewer Paul Constant “the nation’s frustrated reaction to President Obama’s response to George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict-conservative whites were offended by their perception that Obama made the story all about race, while African Americans were sad that he didn’t mount a stronger defense against the inexcusable institutional racism of Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws.”
After reviewing the data available, with a focus on Florida, it appears that we do not have nearly enough evidence to conclusively say whether SYG has had any effect on violent crime, positively or negatively. Nor whether it has increased unpunished white on black violence that should have been punished. As a result, both sides on this issue spin what data there is, continuing to use emotion as the base of their appeals. I still don’t have the answer as to whether Stand Your Ground Laws are a help, a hindrance, or just something else to argue about as part of a broader and seemingly never-ending fight.
Days after George Zimmerman was acquitted in July 2013, a youth group called Dream Defenders, formed in the wake of the Martin shooting, occupied the Florida Capitol building, demanding changes to the SYG law. They threatened to stay until a special legislative session was called on their issue. The speaker of the Florida House finally agreed to hold a hearing in the fall. The hearing was led by Representative Matt Gaetz, who earlier had said he did not want to alter “one damn comma of Stand Your Ground.”
In November 2013, Florida legislators defeated an effort to repeal the SYG law, “following hours of passionate testimony,” by an 11-2 vote.
One-time SYG foe Rep. Irv Slosberg said “stand your ground creates a mentality of destruction and fear while reinforcing a society of violence and aggression.” But this time he voted with the NRA.
By mid-March 2014, the NRA had introduced an amendment expanding the scope of SYG in Florida, called the “warning shot bill.” It was sponsored by Gaetz, who decided to alter more than just a “damn comma.”
Marion Hammer told her members that Gaetz was “one of the strongest, most dedicated supporters of the Second Amendment, your right to keep and bear arms and your right of self-defense that we have ever had in the Florida Legislature.”
“It seems like throughout the years they’ve been using Florida as the legislative laboratory for what we would call the ‘guns anytime, anywhere, anyplace’ mantra,” said the Brady Campaign’s senior national-policy director.
The bill easily passed both houses of the Florida legislature, and was signed into law by NRA member, Governor Rick Scott on June 21, 2014.